A line of beers under 5% finds its way

Jordan St. John, Special to QMI Agency
Grand River Brewing of Cambridge, Ont., offers a core lineup of beers that all weigh in at under 5%. (Supplied)

Grand River Brewing of Cambridge, Ont., offers a core lineup of beers that all weigh in at under 5%. (Supplied)

With the craft beer market trending more and more heavily towards beers with ever higher concentrations of hop bitterness and heavier alcohol percentages, you have to wonder whether there’s room to go the other way.

Consider this: two of my last three columns have mentioned beers that are brewed with bacon. Just during this Ontario Craft Beer week I’ve tasted beers brewed with rye, cardamom, sarsaparilla root, jalapeno pepper and vanilla beans and the week isn’t over yet.

I’m all for experimentation and innovation, but those qualities do not always lie in the direction of more.

In the current climate, offering a stripped-down product that gets back to the bare essentials is practically a risky proposition. If the hue and cry of the craft beer world is for an 11% barrel-aged monster of a beer with three yeast strains, it is downright courageous to decide to offer a core lineup of beers that all weigh in at under 5%.

Grand River Brewing of Cambridge, Ont., does just that.

When Bob Hanenberg opened the brewery five years ago, he did so with the simple ambition of creating well made, flavourful beers that contain less than 5% alcohol. As such, the core lineup that Grand River has to offer are all styles that lend themselves towards providing as much flavour as possible without compromising that vision.

One of the things that has worked in their favour is the sense of place imparted to their beers by their location. They’re located in a historical building that was the original home of the Galt Knife Company in downtown Cambridge. Because of the water available in that location, which is quite hard, just about every beer in the lineup shares the characteristic of being malt forward and possessing excellent head retention. I think this has helped them to develop a unique set of flavour profiles within Ontario that separate their beers from their competitors.

Take, for instance, their Galt Knife Old Style Lager, brewed in a pre-prohibition style. At 4.4%, which people would normally consider to be the territory of light beers, it is jammed full of the bready malt character and always reminds me of walking through a grain loft. Whereas in other reviews I would normally suggest that it has “notes” of malt character, this could not be more present. It has a slightly creamy texture and the grassy hops come through at the finish for a short if refreshing finish.

Their Plowman’s Ale is similarly malt forward and flavourful while remaining narrowly under 5%. It’s essentially an American Red Ale, but the malt with its notes of caramel, toffee and fresh baked bread never quite manages to squeeze out the citrus character imparted by the five different hop varieties being used in the beer.

My favourite of its offerings is the Mill Race Mild, which is a featherweight at 3.5% alcohol. It’s dark brown with auburn highlights. It’s made with roasted barley, but doesn’t impart the bitterness usually associated with it. The flavour is not so much roast as coffee and baker’s chocolate with some toffee and hazelnut. Despite the depth of flavour and the dark hue, a sip is relatively light on the palate, leaving you refreshed. One of my favourite beer memories is of drinking a bottle of this beer fresh from the brewery with a simple picnic of apples and cheese and bread under a tree next to a rural Ontario Mennonite meeting house. It’s the kind of beer that inspires fantasies of a simpler, idyllic country life.

The amount of success that Grand River has achieved during its first five years is impressive, especially given its contrarian bent. Experimentation and high gravity may work for other breweries, but it is my hope that Grand River will continue indefinitely to do a deceptively difficult thing well.

Jordan St. John writes about a number of different facets of beer at